How Slavery Almost Made It Into The Declaration

More than any other day of the year, the Fourth of July is a time to take pride in American history. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks to author Kenneth C. Davis about what you shouldn't forget this Independence Day.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Happy Fourth of July to everyone. Coming up, if you've ever been curious about just how American apple pie really is, we have the answer to that and other questions about the heritage of American food. We'll talk to culinary historian Jessica B. Harris. She's author of "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." That's ahead. But first, again, it's the Fourth of July.

Like many traditional holidays, we all have our own ideas about Independence Day and its place in history. But in some ways the real history doesn't match our perceptions. Joining us now is Kenneth C. Davis, author of the bestselling "Don't Know Much About" series. Kenneth, as always, great to talk to you.

KENNETH C. DAVIS: Thank you Celeste, always a great pleasure to be with you, and ready to pursue happiness.

HEADLEE: Which is, of course, one of the themes that comes out of Fourth of July lore, right? But I wonder, for you, what are the most common misconceptions people have about the Fourth of July? I would assume that the date is one of them.

DAVIS: Well, the date is an interesting little quirk of history because it was actually on July 2nd that the Continental Congress, the second Congress, voted in favor of a resolution of independence, which had been proposed a few weeks earlier. And in fact, John Adams went home that night and scratched out a letter to his lovely wife Abigail, in which he said the 2nd of July will go down in history, it will be a day of parades and bonfires and church bells pealing.

He really thought that this would be the day that would go down in history. He was a genius about many things, but he missed, because it was the fourth on which - the date on which Congress adopted Jefferson's declaration, explaining the vote two days earlier. That really became fixed very quickly in the American imagination as the nation's birthday.

HEADLEE: All right, so let me also give you another couple supposedly commonly held traditions. A, that John Hancock signed it so large because he wanted King George in England to be able to read it without his glasses. True, not true?

DAVIS: Well, that's what - how it was reported, that he said it. And we don't know if it's apocryphal or not. But I think the big misconception here is that everyone signed on the Fourth of July. And we see all those signatures on that iconic page. The signing that, at which John Hancock reportedly said that, didn't take place until August, and not even then did all of the 56 signers sign.

On the Fourth of July actually, only two people signed what was then basically a scratched out, scrawled over, written over, draft version, and that was Hancock, not signing in those big letters, just signing his name. And Charles Thompson, who was secretary of the Congress, who was signing as a witness. That piece of paper was then given to the printer and turned into that very beautiful parchment document that we're all familiar with. Unfortunately...

HEADLEE: ...And that Nicholas Cage tried to steal in National Treasure.

DAVIS: That's right, and we all know that the treasure map is on the back and that's what bifocals were invented.

HEADLEE: That is absolutely historically accurate. But let me talk about another misconception - I assume is a misconception, which is that, of course, when they signed the Declaration of Independence, they rang the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and they rang it so hard it cracked.

DAVIS: That's a part of the myth, and also is a myth. The crack doesn't come until 18 - in the 1830s, and even the name Liberty Bell doesn't come until much later. And then the liberty aspect of it has nothing to do with the Fourth of July and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Liberty Bell was really - became a symbol of abolition in the 1830s. And the connection between abolition and slavery and the Declaration of Independence is even a more important issue, and perhaps one of the other misunderstood aspects of this document.

HEADLEE: Well, since you brought it up, let's talk about that, because initially, although he was a slave holder, Thomas Jefferson had included slaves into the Declaration of Independence. Explain.

DAVIS: He did, and first of all, Jefferson was part of a committee of five men who were assigned to draft a declaration that would explain why America should be independent.

HEADLEE: I think I can name three of them. Can I try? Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, I don't know any other people.

DAVIS: That is three of them. The other two are Roger Sherman...

HEADLEE: ...Of course...

DAVIS: ...And Livingston of...

HEADLEE: ...Of New York.

DAVIS: New York, that's right. And Livingston was very reluctant about independence. He was one of the real foot draggers about this. As many of the men who were in Philadelphia in 1776 were. There wasn't this, you know, great outcry. But back to slavery. Jefferson writes the document. Franklin and Adams suggest a few changes, some of them significant, some word changes. But it's then two days of sitting in Congress as these words are picked over and Jefferson fumed.

He was not happy about having these mere mortals peck away at his words. But most important was that Congress took out a reference, as you mentioned, to slavery. Jefferson had written that the King of England was keeping America from stopping the slave trade and he had, basically, forced it on America. This was not only untrue, it was completely propaganda, in a sense. Congress was having none of it. It was taken out completely.

Jefferson later wrote in some notes that this was taken out in deference to the men who owned slaves as well as those who made a great deal of money transporting them, which is the reminder that these men who voted for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all men being created equal were largely, many of them were slaveholders.

HEADLEE: In fact, many of the men sitting in that room in the Continental Congress were slaveholders. Where did the opinion lie? Was it split half and half between those who made their money, as you say, and supported slaveholding and those who did not? And even at that early date in the late 1700s, was it a divide between the North and the South?

DAVIS: It was a growing divide between North and South. There were certainly slaves in some of the northern states. New York state, for instance, had more slaves than many of the Southern states did. But the movement was growing. There were a couple of, I guess, it wouldn't be fit right to say hardcore abolitionists, but growing abolitionists in the Continental Congress. Benjamin Rush, a fascinating character from Philadelphia.

John Adams was completely and morally opposed to slavery, but like many of the founding fathers who didn't like slavery, they were willing to put this issue to the side in favor of getting compromise on the issue of declaring independence. And then 11 years later, would come back again in 1787 and make similar compromises on slavery when it came to drafting the Constitution in the very same place.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Kenneth C. Davis, author of the best-selling "Don't Know Much About" series. And we're talking about the real history of the Fourth of July. So Kenneth, when was the fourth - that date, the fourth of July, actually celebrated as an Independence Day? When do we start to get the parades and the fireworks and the cookouts with the hamburgers and hot dogs and corn on the cob?

DAVIS: Well, the hamburgers and hotdogs came much later, but it's interesting that almost within the first year it was established. The actual reading...

HEADLEE: Within the first year, like in 1776?

DAVIS: In 1776, it was celebrated as soon as people heard it. In Philadelphia, it was read in public a few days later. George Washington, who, of course, did not sign the Declaration of Independence, he was actually in New York City at the time. And he had the Declaration read to the assembled Continental Army while they were encamped in Manhattan and down by the Bowling Green in lower Manhattan.

And it captured the American imagination, there's no question about it. And the first true celebration was of the Declaration of Independence, followed a year later on the Fourth of July. So very quickly became established that this was the nation's birthday.

HEADLEE: However, there's one more misconception I want to address here, and that is the idea that the signing of the declaration started the Revolutionary War. When in fact, the war had been raging before the Continental Congress ever decided to officially rebel.

DAVIS: That is, of course, correct and this is where we get into trouble when we're supposed to memorize all those dates and battles back in elementary school. The war had started a full year earlier in April of 1775, with the shots heard 'round the world, as Emerson later wrote, at Lexington and Concord. There'd already been the battle of Bunker Hill, fought, of course, on Breed's Hill. The American rebels had captured some cannon from a fort on Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga in May of 1775.

So things were already happening, and actually in July of 1775, a full year before the Declaration of Independence, that Washington takes command of the Continental Army. Interesting story there is that Washington was in Philadelphia at the Congress when they were talking about who would command the Army, John Adams and then Samuel Adams put forth Washington's name. He is the most famous military man in America at the time based on his experience in the French and Indian War.

But they knew they needed a Virginian to lead this Army. And the person who wanted the job was actually John Hancock, who had very little military experience, very wealthy man, and he had been out training and trying to figure out how to command. And he was really crestfallen when Adams, the two Adams nominate Washington to command the Army.

HEADLEE: OK, so many people celebrate July fourth, even though they're not entirely accurate, as the beginning of the Revolutionary War. When does it end? When's victory day in the 1700s?

DAVIS: Well, of course 1775, the war starts, a year later is independence, and it's a long, dragged-out war. But of course it ends unofficially in 1781 with the victory of Washington at Yorktown, where he captures and - defeats and captures a large British Army. What they didn't tell you in school, probably, was how important the French were to that victory.

HEADLEE: So a lot of ifs here. If only they hadn't removed that passage, we might've avoided the Civil War, and if England and France hadn't hated each other so much, we might not have gained independence.

DAVIS: Well, there's no question that the intervention of the French who provided something like 90 percent of the American gunpowder, and certainly the intervention of the young Marquis de Lafayette, who was actually as close to a son as anyone that George Washington had. Lafayette called Washington his father. This young, idealistic Frenchman, very, very wealthy, comes to America purely out of idealism, and he is truly one of the heroes at Yorktown in that victory over the British.

HEADLEE: So merci de la France, a la France.

DAVIS: And that's why there's a Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.

HEADLEE: There you go. Kenneth C. Davis, author of the best-selling "Don't Know Much About" series, joins us from New York. Thank you so much, Kenneth, and happy Fourth of July.

DAVIS: Pursue happiness.

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